Bnonn Tennant (the B is silent)

Where a recovering ex-atheist skewers things with a sharp two-edged sword

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Is Psalm 82 depicting actual gods?

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11 minutes to read TL;DR: yes, but accusing someone who believes this of polytheism or liberalism is semantic mischief.

God stands in the divine council;
      he holds judgment in the midst of the gods:
“How long will you judge unjustly
      and lift up the faces of the wicked?
Judge on behalf of the weak and the fatherless;
      vindicate the afflicted and the destitute.
Rescue the helpless and the needy;
      deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
They neither know nor care—
      they stumble in darkness;
      all the foundations of the earth are shaken.
I, I have said, “You are gods,
      sons of the Most High, all of you.
Yet you will die like man,
      and you will fall like any other prince.”
Rise up, O God—judge the earth,
      for you shall inherit all the nations. Psalm 82

Some Christians are unwilling—put mildly—to interpret Psalm 82 as referring to spiritual beings. Perhaps because it is such a useful nexus for understanding the divine council in the redemptive history of God’s kingdom, it tends to be the passage most strongly attacked when divine council theology is being disputed. The counterargument is that the elohim here are actually human judges or kings, metaphorically called gods, or given this title as some kind of appellative or honorific.

How should we assess this?

Before we look at the text, the most significant problem is not actually exegetical—though there are certainly problems there. Rather, it is the unstated assumption that if Psalm 82 is speaking of human rulers then the entire concept of the divine council unravels, along with its place in the narrative of God’s kingdom. But this is obviously absurd. You can’t refute an expansive stream of biblical theology by doing a word study on one passage that feeds it. Neither the case for believing in spiritual rulers in the heavenly places, nor the case for their redemptive-historical trajectory, rides on Psalm 82. If this psalm were removed from the canon, nothing significant would change. We could still easily prove the divine council in Scripture, and we could still certainly piece together its redemptive-historical arc.

That said, it’s helpful to be prepared, so I will below give the general form of this objection, and then suggest a number of ways to respond. Here is how one Reformed correspondent put it to me:

These verses (and remember they are poetry) must be and are saying: “You men have been exercising God-like functions—judging and ruling, you think of yourselves as gods, and I agree that you are behaving as though you were gods, but ‘like men you shall die, and fall like any prince.’ ” This alone makes sense of the passage.

“Like gods” or just gods?

The first thing to note is the weaseling away from what the text actually says. This is not exegesis, which starts by analyzing the actual words; it is eisegesis, in which a pre-prepared interpretive gloss is quickly applied over the top of the actual words, to sanitize and neutralize them.

God does not merely agree that these rulers are behaving like gods; he declares that they are gods—and not merely gods, but sons:

I, I have said you are gods,
      sons of the Most High all of you (v. 6).

Could this mean that Yahweh has assigned them the appellatives “gods” and “sons” owing to their ruling in his stead? Possibly. Could it mean that he is merely agreeing that they are acting like gods and sons? That is exceedingly awkward. Certainly neither interpretation is self-evident; quite the opposite. To make this case, divine council opponents have to actually argue; and to do that, they must shoulder a huge burden of proof:

i. They must show that the council of verse 1 is a council of men

But the Hebrew adat el is a known cognate of the Ugaritic phrase ʿdtʾilm, which was the term used in Canaan of the congregation of the gods; not of human rulers. Perhaps Psalm 82 is seeking to correct this usage, but if so, we should find clear evidence in the rest of the psalm to overturn their identification as divine beings and present them instead as human rulers—which we do not.

Moreover, a council of men is baffling on its own terms. Who are these men, and where are they located, such that God is standing in their midst? This is explicitly an international council; “all the foundations of the eretz” are shaken by their terrible rulership. Although eretz can just mean “land,” in this case it is paralleled with the nations:

Rise up, O God, judge the earth
Because you shall inherit all the nations. (v. 8)

There can be no doubt, therefore, that this is an international council. But such a thing does not even exist today in the way described, let alone during the time of Israel! If it’s a poetic device, it is an opaque one without parallel in Jewish thought. By contrast, a council of divine beings who ruled the nations is attested repeatedly in both Jewish and wider religious texts. So this attempted explanation is like suggesting that a news report about the president speaking from the White House isn’t referring to Donald Trump speaking from his residence in D.C., but to another unknown, possibly metaphorical president speaking from an unknown, possibly poetic house that also happens to be white.

ii. They must show Scripture using the terms elohim and beney elohim to refer to men

But is there anywhere in the Hebrew Bible—or the wider contemporary literature—where this is the case?

Elohim never refers to men. It always refers to spiritual beings; that is, in fact, the very thing that circumscribes its semantic range! [ Michael S. Heiser, Does Divine Plurality in the Hebrew Bible Demonstrate an Evolution From Polytheism to Monotheism in Israelite Religion?, JESOT 1.1 (2012).] Divine council opponents will sometimes appeal to Exodus 21:6; 22:8, but there is no compelling reason to translate elohim as semantically plural in these instances. “God” is the simplest reading, and indeed the only obvious one—aside from a circular requirement to find precedent for Psalm 82. The consistent usage of the Hebrew Bible is that elohim refers (exclusively, and with some diversity) to residents of the spirit world; never to living human beings.

The plural beney elohim, “sons of God” and its variations, is a term of art in Scripture, also never used of human beings. True—people are sometimes called God’s sons (e.g., 2 Samuel 7:14), but the specific plural wording, beney elohim, is not used on those occasions—precisely because it was a term of art, a religious meme referring to the divine council. Some would argue that it is used of human spirits in Job 1 and 2, but even if we grant that in the teeth of the evidence, that interpretation runs aground when it hits Psalm 82. Consider the implications:

  1. Deceased human spirits are rulers over the nations from heaven. This is an awkward position for someone to take while simultaneously objecting to angelic spirits being rulers over the nations from heaven!
  2. Deceased human spirits judge wickedly from heaven. Needless to say, this is incoherent on any orthodox soteriology—humans in heaven do not sin, because they are like God (1 John 3:2 etc). You cannot enter heaven, but then lose it again.
  3. Deceased human spirits are sentenced to die. This is again embarrassing nonsense. How can God say, “you will die like men” when they have already died? And if this is the second death, how can they be subject to it as his redeemed people in heaven?

iii. They must make sense of Jesus’ appeal to Psalm 82 in John 10:34–39

Seeing the losing case for a word studies approach here, divine council opponents will typically try to short-circuit the exegetical problems by appealing to Jesus’ own interpretation of Psalm 82 in John 10. But this fumbles the clear reading of what Jesus, and his audience, actually think:

The Jews picked up stones again to stone him. Jesus answered them, “I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you going to stone me?” The Jews answered him, “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God.”

Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If he called them gods to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be broken—do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’? If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.”

Again they sought to arrest him, but he escaped from their hands. (John 10:31–39)

Jesus’ argument here is an a fortiori one—probably his favorite form of inference. If we lay it out syllogistically, it would look roughly like this:

  1. God himself calls lesser divine beings gods and makes them adoptive sons of the Most High (Psalm 82:6);
  2. Jesus is not merely an adopted son; he is in the Father, and the Father is in him (John 10:38);
  3. Therefore, how much more a son and how much more equal with God is he.

On the other hand, if you take the word of God to have come to human beings in Psalm 82, then the argument runs aground:

  1. God himself calls human rulers gods and makes them adoptive sons of the Most High (Psalm 82:6);
  2. Jesus is not merely an adopted son; he is in the Father, and the Father is in him (John 10:38);
  3. Therefore, how much more a son and how much more equal with God is he.

The problem here is that the connection between (4) to (5) is fatally equivocal. Under this interpretation, the term “gods” is honorific; it is an appellative that doesn’t denote a divine role or non-human ontology. But the Jews’ outrage is prompted precisely because the claims Jesus is making are about role and ontology. This interpretation has him justifying his claim to divinity on the basis of an honorific title that can be applied to any man—which is an obvious non sequitur.

The fact that the Jews again seek to stone him after hearing this argument is ample demonstration that they did not interpret Psalm 82 as referring to human beings, nor Jesus as saying, in effect, “Cool it guys, we’re all gods here.” Rather, they see him as doubling down on what they suppose is blasphemy. The repeated emphasis in John is on Jesus’ divinity as the Word of God, so we should expect Jesus to amplify, rather than downplay or backpedal, his claim to divinity. Which is more likely in view of Jesus’ mission and John’s theological focus: that we should understand him to be emptying the term gods of so much import that it can be applied even to his unbelieving audience—or using its import to expand and justify his own claim to godhood? The former is obviously 180 degrees from what we should expect. It is unsurprising, then, that the human interpretation makes no sense of Jesus’ argument, nor his opponents’ response.

iv. They must make sense of men dying like men

A final rejoinder at this point, as the lines of argument run dry, is that gods cannot die—so even if the human council interpretation of Psalm 82 is poor, the divine council alternative is incoherent in light of verse 7:

However, you will die like man [or men],
and you will fall like one of the princes.

I think this objection arises only on the spur of the moment, because if you take the time to think it through, it actually obliterates the human council interpretation. Consider: God says that, despite his declaring these beings to be gods, they will nonetheless die like man and fall like any prince. This contrast only works if there is a contrast; i.e., if these gods are greater than the typical prince, and if it is unnatural for them to die like man. What possible sense does it make to tell men that they will die like men, or princes that they will fall like princes? Such an interpretation turns the psalmist into a rhetorical dunce with no competence in his craft.

While men dying like men makes no sense at all, gods dying like men certainly does. Confusion only arises if we ignore the theology of death articulated in Scripture, and think of it in purely biological terms. But in the Bible, death is not primarily a biological event; it is a relational one. Biology is incidental: death itself is separation from God’s benevolence, and exposure to his wrath. The very first time we see death, in Genesis 2:16–17, God solemnly promises it to Adam and Eve should they eat from the tree. He neither lied nor changed his mind—they did die on the day they ate, as presupposed by Paul in Ephesians 2:1; Colossians 2:13 etc. Death simply isn’t biological at root.

The first death was in Eden; the second death is in the lake of fire (Revelation 21:8). Neither of these is biological. To the contrary, the second death involves eternal biological life.

Now, here’s the kicker: Jesus in Matthew 25:41 explicitly states that this lake of fire, this second death, is prepared for the devil and his angels—some of whom are the very beings addressed in Psalm 82. If the lake of fire is explicitly described as (i) death, and (ii) originally for wicked spiritual beings, then the judgment of Psalm 82 makes explicit sense when applied to wicked spiritual beings!

So Psalm 82:7 does not require us think that biological death is in view; rather, it is establishing a contrast between these gods’ status (v. 6) and their punishment (v. 7). The parallelism emphasizes that their fate will be the same as that of men. It is an ironic reversal—indeed, an allusion to the original ironic reversal in Genesis 3:14–15. By failing to fulfill the role of divinity, these beings are made lower than the men they were supposed to rule. Just as Satan does not eat literal dust in Genesis 3:14, and just as he is not brought down into a literal pit in Isaiah 14:15, so these gods are not literally killed in Psalm 82:6–7. The point is much like that in Isaiah 14—indeed, the language of “falling” is even the same:

How you have fallen from heaven, O morning star, son of dawn!
      You are cut down to the ground, conqueror of nations!
And you said in your heart,
      “I will ascend to heaven;
      I will raise up my throne above the stars of God;
and I will sit on the mountain of assembly
      on the summit of Tsaphon;
I will ascend to the high places of the clouds,
      I will make myself like the Most High.”
But you are brought down to Sheol,
      to the far reaches of the pit. Isaiah 14:12–15

To be brought down to Sheol, of course, is to be brought down to the grave, to the underworld. It is a metaphor for biological death when applied to human beings. Yet we do not think that Isaiah is therefore teaching that Satan dies in that sense; nor do we suppose the passage can only be speaking of a human king, and not of Satan. For the same reason, it strains Psalm 82:7 to take the judgment of death as strictly biological. It is referring, rather, to the gods faring no better than human rulers who are weak and mortal, who cannot rule forever.

 7 comments

steve hays

Unless as missed it as I was skimming the article, you never define what you mean by actual gods.

steve hays

Put another way, while you systematically explain what you don’t think it means (process of elimination), you don’t discuss the ontological status of the “actual gods” in this passage. What’s their nature? In what respect are they designated “gods”? (Unless that got past me.)

Andrew Schumacher

Well, met, Bnonn. While one can squint and see human rulers here, I don’t see how one could read this in light of the rest of the Hebrew Bible as only metaphorically referring to human beings as Elohim.

As you point out, we do see a human king being addressed metaphorically, but the real second person in Isaiah 14 is a spiritual being. When the metaphor happens at all, it happens the other way round, and we recognize the human ruler to be the one only figuratively addressed, and the spiritual ruler is the one that is real.

GW

I think Heiser’s done a good job on this topic, yet for now he’s not been able to convince those who’ve been taught differently their whole lives. But as the younger generations begin to assume more responsibility in the churches and seminaries, we’ll see a shift in thinking on this topic. If I were to summarize a thesis it would be this: Elohim are real, and are a key (spiritual) influence on the world.

With that in mind, what’s your thinking on this topic as it relates to the letters in Revelation 2-3? Each message is not directed to each church specifically, but rather to each angel* of the churches (“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write”). This has obvious parallels to Old Testament divine council themes. In both instances, divine beings are being judged by the LORD for where they have failed. Of course in Revelation 2-3 it is clear that these messages also apply to those in the churches, yet much in these letters could reasonably be seen messages to God’s angels waging spiritual warfare (Rev. 2:13). Since our primary battle is spiritual (Eph. 6:12), it makes sense that the Lord Jesus would also be giving direction to spiritual beings. There is also a parallelism between both worlds. The spiritual battle on earth pictures the battle in the heavenlies (Rev. 12:7). And what happens in heaven has an effect on the affairs of man (Rev. 12:17). Is the church missing a large portion of the Bible by downplaying/ignoring the role played by angels?

I’ll admit this isn’t my idea, but was brought to my attention when an unnamed blogger brought it up to Heiser. To my surprise, Heiser rejected any supernatural explanation as to the reason the letters were addressed to angels, instead choosing to interpret these greetings as poetic metaphors addressing the church(es).

*The Greek term (angelo) can mean (human) messenger, not just angel, but in the other NT passages its predominant use is that of a divine messenger. I take it as read that these instances in Rev. 2-3 refer to actual angels.

Dominic Bnonn Tennant

I think what you say about heavenly and earthly “linkage” makes sense, but I’m not convinced the angels in Revelation 2–3 are elohim. Maybe they are, but it doesn’t seem like an open-and-shut case. The main issue for me is why John would be writing letters to them. How is he to deliver these letters? And why would Jesus not address them directly, like he does in Psalm 82? Earthly letters directed to heavenly beings makes very little sense.

I also think I know who you’re talking about, and he doesn’t couch things quite as you have. He is honestly what people rightly refer to as a “nutjob,” who has devoted all his energy to the notion that the gospel is for angels too, and the church has been neglecting this critical fact for two millennia. Mike is right to discount him and his exegesis.

GW

Yes, that seems to be my memory of that guy as well. Very odd.

Still I cannot shake the idea that the peculiar way the letters are addressed has significance. Clearly these messages are (at the least) intended for seven churches in the late-1st century (as well as the church universally thereafter). We don’t need to craft a novel theology to understand them.

To your point, Christ didn’t need a physical letter to direct this message to His angels anymore than He needed prophets to write Isaiah 14 or Ezekiel 28 condemning Satan. But how else would we know about Lucifer’s fall, lest it be revealed? When the Bible reveals anything, including that of angels and the divine realm, it does so for our benefit (Rom. 15:4). So if these letters are addressed to divine beings which oversee these churches in some way, what does that reveal to us about the spiritual realm?

Not an essential doctrine, but something to ponder. All the best.